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On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading is St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, something I have written about many times.

My prayer this morning focused on Mary’s final words to Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

I am the handmaid of the Lord. As I repeated those words, I saw the reality that that is my primary identity – handmaid of the Lord. Everything else: wife, mother, daughter, friend, spiritual director, law professor and so on, is secondary to that primary role. Everything other aspect of my identity is a support and way of living out that primary element of my identity. I’m not saying other aspects are not important. (Certainly in Catholic thought family is of profound significance.) But they are supportive of my primary identity.

At one level that says nothing other than: God first, so it is not really a new realization. But for some reason, the recognition in this form was powerfully striking to me this morning.

“I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

As we countdown these final days until Christmas, here is a poem by Wendell Berry, from his Sabbath poems:

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

(With thanks to my friend Richard, who sent me this poem.)

What Can I Do For You?

Yesterday I had breakfast with my friend Dave. We manage to get together every couple of months for breakfast or lunch and it is always nourishing for me.

At some point near the end of almost every one of our times together, Dave looks at me and says, “What can I do for you?” I’m deeply touched each time he asks the question, which is posed in a way that lets me know he means it.

One of the first things Jesus often asked people he met was “What do you want me to do for you?” What do you need? How can I help?

Merely being asked the question is a balm. And it invites examination of where we need healing, where we might need a helping hand – perhaps uncovering something we didn’t even know was there.

What a difference it might make if we approached everyone with that aim of uncovering: What can I do for you? How can I make your life better/easier?

Perhaps the gift we lay at the creche on Christmas morning might be a resolve to try to do exactly that.

I often am nourished by the reflections of Kayla McClurg on scripture readings, and her commentary on today’s Gospel from John was no exception.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we hear John’s account of the testimony of John the Baptist, who “was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”

McClurg observes

We are told that John himself was not the light . . . BUT — notice the compound sentence, each part having equal weight — BUT “he came to testify to the light.” Lest we be tempted to make our permanent home in who we are not, in the small cramped space of low expectations and limited responsibility, the second half of the sentence clarifies the first. It calls me out from the shadows and gives me my own significant part to play. I am not the light, but I am called to testify to the light. To testify is to tell my truth, the whole truth, to be held accountable for what I know and see. I am a witness to the light. I have watched it shine in my very own darkness.

As we reflect on John the Baptist, who for me is one of the great Advent figures, we need to remember that we are called to do exactly as John did. Not, in McClurg’s words “by trying to be light, not by trying to create an illusion of light”, but by “tell[ing] my truth, the whole truth,” by being a witness to the light.

Mary’s Message

Today the Catholic Church in the United States celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day that is of special significance to many communities, particularly Americans of Mexican heritage. On this day we celebrate the appearance of Mary to a humble Mexican man, Juan Diego.

The Church recognizes a number of appearances by Mary over the years. In all of those appearances, the message has been essentially the same: Conversion, Faith and Prayer. Turn to Jesus…have faith in Jesus.. and pray, pray, pray.

Mary’s appearances are never about her. Rather, Mary always emphasizes a return to Christ, a genuine personal conversion. And, in the various appearances reported, Mary often spoke of the importance of prayer.

Many people today react to the idea of Marian apparitions with some embarrassment or suspicion. And it is certainly the case that belief in apparitions is not a matter of faith or morals, so the Church doesn’t require that people believe in them.

But the truth is the God continually reaches out to each of us, sometimes dramatically and sometimes in simple ways. Our God is a self-communicating God who continually speaks to us. Is it so strange that one of the vehicles God would use to communicate with us is Mary, whom he chose to be the mother of Christ?

Throughout the history of Christianity, believers have always had a strong need to experience Mary in the midst of their daily life. At no other time is this truer than in times of affliction and need. It is no surprise, therefore, that many Marian apparitions are connected with people who are experiencing some kind of crisis in their own lives, in the lives of their local community or in the world at large.

Whatever else today’s feast is, it is a reminder to us to be open to the possibility of God speaking to us in many ways, including through Mary.

This is True

There is a wonderful Advent prayer by Daniel Berrigan’s Testimony: The Word Made Flesh that I often use at the beginning of Advent programs I give. I smiled when I read someone’s post of it on Facebook this morning and decided to share it here. It conveys beautifully the hope that is the central message of the Advent season.

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—

This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—

This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—

This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—

This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—

This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—

This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

Let us continue our Advent journey with the same hope. In moments when we feel frustrated, frightened, angry and lost at the state of the world around us, let us remember what we know to be true.

Today was the second gathering of the three-session Advent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our first session last week focused on the meaning of Advent. Our theme for this week was Incarnation.

My talk addressed the extraordinary claim of Christianity that God becomes human. I talked about God’s decision to incarnate, using Ignatius’ contemplation of the Incarnation for the vehicle for that. I then reflected on the Incarnation as both the revelation of God’s love for us and our security that God cannot be separated from us. Finally I addressed the challenge to us of Incarnation: What difference does it make to how I live my life that God became human? What challenge does Incarnation present to me?

After my talk, I gave the participants time to engage in a contemplation of the incarnation and we ended with some group discussion.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 18:20.) A copy of the the handout participants used for their individual reflection during the session is here.

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